September 18th, 2008

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Via Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber, the news that Professor Michael Reiss has been forced to resign as Director of Education of the Royal Society. Reiss’ crime? Making a carefully-argued case that science teachers in schools should engage respectfully with pupils who come to school with a creationist world-view. (I have argued myself along the same lines, so I’m biased in his favour.) Richard Dawkins, the eminent geneticist and atheist preacher, was to his credit not among those calling for the ouster.

The Royal Society’s statement says that

While it was not his intention, this has led to damage to the society’s reputation.

I’ll say, but not the way they mean it.

The damage is a self-inflicted wound. The Royal Society is a shadow of its former greatness, but it is still expected to stand for the scientific method. The RS members are all natural scientists, and mostly university teachers. They have zero professional expertise in school pedagogy (or for that matter theology). I suppose that’s why they hired Reiss, a leading educational researcher and incidentally an ordained priest in the Church of England. His critics don’t contend that Reiss is behaving unprofessionally, by disregarding or misrepresenting research evidence. They do not have the standing to criticise him collegially as a scholar. So what do they do? The first time he says something that goes against their prejudices, they should give him a respectful hearing and state their reasons for disagreement. In fact they react from the gut like the Dogpatch school board and throw him out.

Reiss will survive this better than the Royal Society. The RS job was presumably a part-time supplement to his main work as a tenured professor at the London University Institute of Education. This is Britain’s leading wonk room on educational policy. I bet that it and Reiss are far more influential on school policy than the RS ever has been. New Labour has not shown itself to be very interested in science, but it does take religion – the liberal Christianity of Blair and Brown, and the tense Islam of 1.6 million Brits – pretty seriously. The government has supported faith-based schools against a good part of both its own base and the tabloids. I expect Whitehall to firmly back Reiss, explicitly or implicitly.

For its first century, the Royal Society was arguably the most important scientific body in the world. It developed from a tiny cell of scientific revolutionaries into the first proper institutional framework for scientific information and debate since the burning of the Library of Alexandria. Universities only took over in the nineteenth century after Wilhelm von Humboldt. Today it has shrunk to a worthy but secondary body. Membership of the RS is an important status reward for British scientists; it publishes rated journals; distributes a little research money (ca. £36m in 2005/6, out of a national total science spending of ca. £5bn); and competes in the market for policy advice with solid reports on stem cells, biofuels and so on. But if it didn’t exist, it probably would not be invented today.

Ancient prestige is a fragile basis for the survival of an institution. The Royal Society has just taken another big step down the slope to irrelevance. If it’s not careful, it will join the Académie Française, whose members make flowery speeches of mutual admiration in plumed hats, while failing in their one remaining task, to produce a usable prescriptive dictionary of French. You can buy two obsolete volumes (A up to Mappemonde). Sales are not available.

PS: The Royal Society is not to be confused with the Royal Institution where Davy and Faraday worked, which now focuses entirely and successfully on public science education. Its Christmas lectures for children, started by Faraday, are deservedly famous. Nobel prizewinners think themselves honoured to be asked to deliver them, and tremble.

PS2: If you think that Reiss’ views on the substance are still wishful thinking, read comment 62 here.

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